By Tom Ohaus

My involvement with guided halibut issues at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) began nearly two decades ago.  After over a decade of struggling with the issue of guided halibut allocation and management, the NPFMC passed the Catch Sharing Plan (CSP) in October of 2008. The CSP allocated a lower percentage of halibut for the guided fleet than the previous management plan, especially at the levels of abundance we’re currently experiencing.

In Southeast Alaska the guided sport angler went from being able to keep two halibut of any size in 2006 to a limit of one halibut per day under 37 inches in 2010. For 2016, the limit is one per day and that halibut must either be less than 43 inches or over 80 inches.

In Southcentral Alaska, an area where residents of Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Mat-su and Kenai Peninsula generally go fishing, the 2016 regulations dropped from 2 halibut per day of any size in 2012 to the 2016 regulations of 2 per day, but one must be less than 28 inches, guided halibut fishing is closed on Wednesday, and guided anglers have an annual cap of 4 halibut per year.

Following the passage of the CSP, the guided fleet became keenly aware that we didn’t have enough allocation to continue providing the historical catching opportunity to guided anglers. Also, we received the message in a broad-based stakeholder group from representatives of the commercial sector that reallocation of their fish would have to come with compensation. In short, we had to buy them or lease them.

We took that message to heart and went to work on a plan to purchase commercial quota. We needed a plan that would function well for our industry and the many people who access the resource via the guided fleet.  In 2011 the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization (SEAGO) and the Alaska Charter Association (ACA) were awarded a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to study a pooled approach to purchasing commercial quota. In simple terms – guided anglers would become the owners of a pool of fish purchased from the willing sellers of commercial quota. The amount of quota purchased through program would be added to the existing quota in the CSP and allow for improved regulations.

Our plan was modeled after an existing set of rules within the commercial halibut fishery known as a Community Quota Entity (CQE).  Under the CQE program, a community is allowed to purchase and hold halibut quota in a common pool and assign those fishing rights to members of the community.  Our seeks to implement a similar concept, however, the rights to the pool will be assigned to guided recreational anglers and is thus called a Recreational Quota Entity or RQE.  The RQE proposal is currently working its way through the NPFMC process. A detailed analysis is scheduled for a  hearing in April with hopes of final action in October. The Council only has oversight of one portion of the plan – whether or not to allow an RQE to be established that can purchase IFQ and allow this quota to be added to the basis upon which guided angler bag limits are determined each year.  It doesn’t have the authority to mandate how the RQE will fund these purchases.

After the RQE is given the ability to purchase and hold QS, the next step would be to find a funding mechanism(s) to buy the quota. The guided sport fleet favors a halibut stamp, similar to the current king salmon stamp, that each guided halibut angler will purchase. Each guided recreational angler bears the cost but ultimately the risk is borne by the operators as it figures into the total cost of a trip and our ability to set rates. Aside from providing funds for buying quota, the revenues from the stamp could be used to cover the cost of managing the RQE and ADFG’s costs with halibut management.

As the RQE accumulates quota, guided anglers would enjoy better regulations and value for their trip. Even small incremental changes upward in the length will provide the guided angler a sense of increased value.  An RQE, even with a small amount of quota, has the ability to incrementally move the needle in a direction that will be viewed very positively by our clients and will have a positive effect on our ability to entice people to come to Alaska to spend their money in our communities. These small changes will also allow Alaskans, many of whom rely on charters for their halibut fishing, better opportunity to fill their freezers.

Improved marketability for guided businesses and lodges spreads economic benefits throughout coastal communities via increased expenditures at local restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, grocery stores, and other retailers. Contribution to local sales tax, bed tax, and fish box tax help local budgets in these strained times.

This plan provides for relatively small adjustments in allocation that provide potentially large impacts without all the fighting. Additionally, involvement in the existing halibut IFQ plan will require greater accountability and tracking of guided sport catch. The guided fleet gains greater motivation to act as a long-term player in the sustainability and care of the halibut resource. By vesting each guided angler and giving them a stake in the future, those anglers buy into the concept that conservation today has pay offs tomorrow.

The RQE will provide choice for those who access the resource. The guided angler can choose to participate or not based on the stamp purchase. The commercial IFQ shareholder who wants to sell can choose to sell to the RQE or not. The board that manages the RQE can decide whether liberalizing the regulations is worth additional investment in IFQ shares. I believe giving choice to people results in more rational outcomes than freezing allocation ad infinitum.

Static allocations are not a realistic way to manage any resource. Allowing guided anglers the opportunity to enter into a willing seller/willing buyer arrangement with commercial halibut quota share holders let’s market forces determine the highest and best use of the resource.   Commercial halibut fishermen have made this argument for years as they rebuffed proposals which included the uncompensated reallocation of their halibut quota shares to other user groups.  Our years of research, dedication, and hard work to identify an equitable solution to this problem have come to the same conclusion – if guided sport anglers want better access to the resource, the only fair and equitable way to achieve that is to purchase those rights from commercial fishermen.  Current regulations prohibit such a transfer.   The solution – one that people have worked long, hard, and with great dedication to develop – is the RQE.

Tom is currently the Board President for Southeast Alaska Guides Organization (SEAGO) and is owner of Angling Unlimited, a guided sport fishing charter and lodge service.